Tag Archives: Art Alternatives

Art Alternatives Pen & Ink Sketchbooks: They’ve Changed!

I have mentioned the Pen & Ink Sketchbooks from Art Alternatives many times on this blog. Their pocket size sketchbook with the heavyweight paper is the closest alternative I’ve found to a Moleskine Sketchbook, for those who prefer creamy smooth paper, as opposed to the brighter white, toothier paper found in many other competitors’ pocket sketchbooks (such as Hahnemuhle, HandBook Artist Journals, Leuchtturm, and Art Alternatives’ Sketch & Draw). Check out my “Four Notebooks Reviewed” series from several years ago for a detailed comparison.

I’ve used a few of the Pen & Ink sketchbooks over the years and they never seemed to change much– even their packaging was the same… until now. While trying to meet a minimum for free shipping at Blick, I decided to throw in a couple of these sketchbooks, but I got a bit of a surprise!

Here’s the image for what I ordered:


But here’s what I got:

I couldn’t care less if they change the design of the paper band, and in fact the new branding is quite attractive, but I was horrified to see that they’ve changed the construction of the notebook itself to the diagonal elastic that Art Alternatives has used on their Sketch & Draw line for a while. (See my Sketch & Draw review).

I didn’t like the diagonal elastic on the Sketch & Draw, and I don’t like it on the Pen & Ink. Very disappointing update– I wonder if they’ve changed anything else about the notebook, but I haven’t even taken the shrinkwrap off to investigate.

Jet Pens has updated their product image, so they are selling the new version. Amazon still has the product images with the orange bands, but like Blick, they may actually have stock with the new design, since the UPC codes are the same. If you order from them, you’re taking your chances, but since the listing says there are only a few units left, maybe it’s from older stock with the orange band and vertical elastic? (The product descriptions have been wonky on Amazon for years– there is a disconnect between the image and the actual paper weight. This listing seems to be the medium weight sketchbook with 192 pages of 54lb paper– don’t buy it unless you want the lighter weight paper comparable to a regular Moleskine. This listing has the same product image, and references 54lb paper, but the title says “heavy weight” and the customer Q&A indicates that the description is wrong and the product is actually 92 pages of 110 lb paper, similar to the Moleskine Sketchbook paper weight.)

The price on these at Blick is just fantastic– currently $5.69 for the pocket size sketchbook. And their customer service department was great about resolving my issue of not wanting this version of the product. It’s not like I desperately need more sketchbooks anyway, but I can’t help being sad that they changed these! I’ve ordered one on eBay that seems to be the old design, just because, well, you know…

Let us know in the comments if you’ve recently seen stock of the old design, or if you’ve tried the new ones!

Moleskine Monday: Sketch Album Review

I’ve had this Moleskine Sketch Album for quite a while and haven’t gotten around to reviewing it, mainly because I knew I’d probably be disappointed! Moleskine’s quality has been waning for years, and though their regular sketchbooks have been my favorite notebooks for a very long time, I’ve refused to buy any of the currently produced ones because they just aren’t the same anymore. Luckily, I have quite a stockpile of old ones! (After this post where I inventoried my spares and worried they might not last until I was in my 90s, I snagged quite a few more on eBay so now I probably have twice as many!)


Anyway, when the sketch album was first announced, I thought it was a good thing– I’d actually thought Moleskine should make a softcover sketchbook, thinking it could be a good alternative for on-the-go use. But the Sketch Album turns out not to be Sketchbook innards with a soft cover– it’s more like a Moleskine Cahier with upgraded paper.

When you open the shrinkwrap, you’ll notice the cardboard cover, which is just like the Cahiers, not the soft faux-leather used on the softcover notebooks. As usual there is stitching on the spine, and a pocket in the back, which is too tight for tucking much more than a few small sheets. When you remove the paper band, you’ll see that the back has been designed with some reference info and tools. I’m not sure how useful these are to most people.



Since Moleskine started labeling various notebooks as an “Art Plus” collection, they’ve started noting paper weights on the packaging, hoping to appeal to those of us who care about these things. The Sketch Album is 120 GSM. That sounds good compared to most upscale pocket notebooks, which tend to be in the 80-100 GSM range, but it’s a lot less than the regular Moleskine Sketchbook, which is 165 GSM. The difference is obvious– the paper in the sketch album feels thinner and floppier. Each sheet is perforated.


When I did my pen tests, I noticed that the sketch album paper actually feels softer to write on– I could hear the pen tips tapping more audibly on the regular sketchbook. The comparison below features an old “Modo e Modo” Moleskine  rather than a current production sketchbook. You can see right away how much worse the show-through and bleed-through is on the sketch album, with just a couple of exceptions. The album wins on how much the Accu-liner marker spreads when it is held on a spot for 5 seconds– the Modo sketchbook soaked it up and made a much bigger dot. And the Super Sharpie seemed to soak into the old sketchbook more too. But otherwise, the album did not do well at all, with fountain pens bleeding and feathering and lots more show-through. I tested some watercolor paints too– Moleskine does not claim that either of these notebooks is meant for watercolors, but I use them in the sketchbooks quite often. In the sketch album, the watercolors seemed to pull up the paper fibers more, creating a speckled texture that is much more noticeable than in the sketchbook.



So would I use this “Art Plus” sketch album for actual art? For pencil sketches, or perhaps fine pen & ink drawings with Pigma Micron pens, yes, I might use it. But I’d be much more likely to use it as an upgrade to the Moleskine Cahier or softcover Reporter Notebook. The sketch album is nicely flexible and pocketable, and the paper feels great to write on with fine point gel ink pens. The paper is a nice step up from regular lightweight Moleskine paper– not enough of a step up to make fountain pen users happy, but others will enjoy it for daily jottings. But if you are an artist who likes the regular sketchbooks, stick with them.

To buy: Moleskine Art Plus Sketchbooks and Albums on Amazon. They also have interesting alternatives like the Leuchtturm Hardcover Pocket Sketchbook Black, which has 180 GSM paper, and the Pen & Ink Heavy-Weight Blank Sketch Book— make sure you get the heavy-weight one which has 145 GSM paper– read the full description.

Review: Watercolor Sketchbook Comparison

I’m often dabbling with watercolors in sketchbooks that aren’t really made for using them– regular notebook or sketchbook paper can deteriorate a bit with wet paints, or wrinkle and buckle a lot as it dries. So I’ve been experimenting more with using actual watercolor paper in hopes of better results. I’ve had various watercolor pads over the year, and I’ve reviewed larger-size Stillman and Birn sketchbooks that work beautifully with wet media, but for the sake of fitting more closely with my more frequent daily notebook form factor, I decided to try a Moleskine watercolor book in the pocket size. As is typical with Moleskines made in the last few years, it did not seem as well-made as it could be, and I’ve seen complaints online about a change in quality in Moleskine’s watercolor paper, so I decided to check out some other alternatives in the same format. Let’s take a look!

Here they all are, the Moleskine, as well as the Pen & Ink watercolor sketchbook from Art Alternatives, and the Pentalic Aqua Journal.

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In close-up of spines below, from left to right: Moleskine, Pentalic, Pen & Ink.
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In photos below, from top to bottom: Pentalic, Moleskine, Pen & Ink.
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They are all very similar in terms of packaging, size, and features, but each has some features that differentiate it.

The Moleskine is the thinnest, mainly due to having thinner cover boards. The spine is a little crooked and loose, as if it was glued to the book block a bit unevenly. The binding is nice and flexible, though, and opens totally flat, except for the spreads between signatures where a little glue keeps the gutter from opening all the way down– it’s still quite flat, though. You can actually fold the cover back about 270°. Each signature is 3 sheets of paper, 60 pages total. The pages are not perforated (though I have heard that at one point Moleskine watercolor books did have perforated pages, I think). I’ve done various sorts of doodles and sketches in it with varying degrees of wetness, but the pages have all dried nice and flat. Moleskine says the paper is “heavy” but does not specify a paper weight in GSM or lbs. For my purposes, it is perfectly fine although as always, I wish Moleskine had not started to let the cover edges stick out so far from the pages. The list price for the pocket size watercolor book is $13.95. Other sizes are available.

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I bought the Pen & Ink watercolor book after being so pleased with their heavyweight page sketchbook as a Moleskine alternative. I like their slightly soft cover material and nicely rounded spines. Art Alternatives sketchbooks always seem very well-made, especially given their low prices.  This watercolor book includes a ribbon marker, which I could live without– it has a lot of extra length dangling out. Every page is perforated. The paper seems of a similar weight to Moleskine, but is perhaps very slightly cooler in tone, and the texture of it seems to have a more linear grain than Moleskine’s. Each signature is 2 sheets of cold press 180 GSM paper, 56 pages total. There is glue between the signatures here too, but it’s hard to compare how it opens flat because the perforations cause a bend before you even get into the gutter, and you probably wouldn’t want to paint across a spread with the perforations in the middle anyway. Again the whole book can be opened more than flat, almost but not quite bending all the way back on itself. Again the pages seem to hold up well to wet washes without buckling or deteriorating, but my pH test pen seemed to indicate the paper is not as acid-free as the other watercolor notebooks. The pen should look purple on acid-free paper, but it came out more a brownish-yellow on several tries, which indicates acidity. The list price for this sketchbook is $10.99, but discounted prices can be much lower. A larger size is also available.

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The Pentalic watercolor journal was my favorite in terms of how it feels in the hand– it’s a bit smaller and chunkier than the others, with slightly less cover overhang. The exterior is a dark blue, which is a nice change. Here you have 6 signatures of 2 sheets each, so only 48 pages, but the paper is 300 GSM and very noticeably thicker than the others. The spine is a bit too liberally glued, unfortunately, so the binding is a bit stiff and needs to be bent back and forth to loosen it. The end pages where the book block is attached to the cover are really heavily glued and the back cover doesn’t open totally flat. This is especially a problem because the back pocket comes up closer to the spine than on the other two notebooks, making it awkward to actually get anything into the pocket. There were some pages where the glue between signatures came pretty far out of the gutter and the residue is visible where I forced the pages flat. This was the only notebook to include a loop that could hold a pencil or brush (which I personally could live without). This also has a ribbon marker. The pages seemed to hold up well to my tests. I paid $12.95 for this, but I had a hard time finding this size for sale online anywhere and could not confirm if that is the official list price.

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Ultimately, I’m not enough of a watercolor expert to really judge these notebooks based on the performance of the paper– I muddle around with watercolors as the easiest way to color in some of my sketches, but I don’t know how to properly use them in any more sophisticated way.  For my needs, the paper in all of these sketchbooks works just fine, though I’m concerned that the Pen & Ink paper might yellow with time if it’s not acid-free. This comparison is more about the form and features of each sketchbook– every user will be different in their preferences regarding ribbon markers, pen loops, thickness, etc. I’m having a hard time picking a favorite– I lean towards the Pentalic because I love the chunky shape and thick paper, but the stiff binding , ribbon marker, pen loop, and awkward back pocket are negative factors for me. (I might just try to remove the ribbon marker and pen loop.)

FYI, the paints I’ve used in all these are mostly artist-grade Winsor & Newton— despite my lack of expertise, I splurged on an upgrade from the student-grade Cotman sets I already owned, partly because I liked the folding metal tin they came in. This set seems to have been discontinued, but you can buy the empty metal tin separately. It’s meant to hold 12 half-pans, but you can easily fit in more. Schmincke and Sennelier also make watercolor sets in this type of tin.

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I would love to hear from more experienced watercolor users– what are your favorite pocket size sketchbooks? What do you look for in paper? What other features do you prefer?

Links to buy all these sketchbooks at Amazon and Blick are below. I did not find the Pentalic for sale online in the 3.5 x 5.5″ size, but there are listings for a larger size. I bought my small one at Lee’s Art Shop in Manhattan.
Moleskine Art Plus Watercolor Album, Pocket, Black, Hard Cover (3.5 x 5.5) (Classic Notebooks)
$13.95 at Amazon

Moleskine Watercolor Notebooks

$12.44 at Blick

Pentalic 100-Percent Cotton Watercolor Journal 5-Inch by 8-Inch
$15.48 at Amazon for 5×8 version, 3.5 x 5.5 not listed there

Pentalic Watercolor Journal and Travel Brush Set

$18.99 at Blick for 5×8 set including brush, 3.5×5.5 version not listed there

Art Alternatives Pen & Ink Watercolor Books – 5.5″x3.5″ – 56 122lb Cold Press Pages
$7.69 at Amazon

Art Alternatives Watercolor Books

$9.23 at Blick

Review: Pen & Ink Squared Notebook

I’ve reviewed and mentioned the Pen & Ink brand sketchbooks several times on this site (see here, here, here, and here.) They are the closest substitute for a Moleskine sketchbook with the heavy-weight card stock paper, and they’re affordable and well-made. But I’ve never reviewed their other notebooks with standard weight paper. Squared notebooks are my other favorite go-to for everyday use, so how does the Pen & Ink squared version hold up? Let’s take a look.


The exterior is what you’d expect– same cover that feels slightly thicker and almost padded. Not too much cover overhang. You get the standard back pocket and a ribbon marker. Pretty much the same size as a pocket Moleskine, but a little chunkier, and as with the sketchbook, it feels well-made and solid and just nice.


But when I opened the notebook for the first time and saw the pages, I was very disappointed. I think I physically recoiled at those glaringly dark lines! The paper itself is a bit brighter white than the creamy Moleskine paper, and the graph lines are very thick, so it is a really distracting combination. I like to use fine point pens and I’m not sure I could get used to the lines on the paper competing so much with my small handwriting in thin ink lines. Other than that, show-through and bleed-through are about average, and fountain pens work pretty well. I bought a second notebook like this some months later in hopes that I might have gotten one from a bad batch, but the dark lines were the same, so I guess it is deliberate and unlikely to change unless someone at Art Alternatives gets enough complaints! Rather than use this as an everyday notebook for lists and things, I may end up using it for collages or drawing and painting with bolder, opaque colors that can stand up to the dark lines.


Pen & Ink notebooks are available on Amazon, Blick, or at JetPens.

What I’m Using Now (and Recently)

A reader asked for more details about the notebooks in my “What I’m Using Now” photo. I haven’t been updating that photo as often as I should, though for the most part, it’s still accurate most of the time.

The red and blue notebooks are HandBook Artist Journals that I have been slowly filling with drawings and watercolors and collages over the last few years. Both were started as travel journals but have evolved into not having any particular purpose other than messing around with art supplies. These sketchbooks have been a favorite of mine for years– I love the construction and the cloth covers, which come in nice colors. The paper is good for drawing and watercolors, but a bit too toothy for writing on with fine point pens. I bought quite a few extras and am glad I did, as their prices have crept up lately, at least at some stores. They are still pretty cheap at Blick: $8.80 for the pocket size:
Hand Book Artist Journals, Cadmium Green

The black notebooks in the photo are 3 pocket-size Moleskines, one squared and two sketchbooks. I am currently using one squared and one sketchbook. I tend to have a squared notebook as my main daily notebook for keeping lists, jotting notes, journal entries, etc.– it’s usually a Moleskine, from my stash of older ones, but I’ve also occasionally used a Piccadilly. I also tend to have a sketchbook going for assorted drawings, usually made during my lunch hour when I’m sitting on a park bench observing people. Sometimes I’ll also use a sketchbook, or an unlined notebook, as my main daily notebook too– it doesn’t change things much, other than that I might be a bit more likely to use a bit of watercolor in it here and there. I sometimes do that in the squared notebooks too but the lighter paper doesn’t take to it as well.

One recent exception to my Moleskine/Piccadilly habit was using a Pen & Ink sketchbook as my daily notebook for 3 months. If you like the heavier, creamy paper of Moleskine sketchbooks, these Pen & Ink books might be your best alternative right now. The paper is not quite as heavy as Moleskine’s, but it’s very close, and sturdy enough to handle watercolors and most pens without showthrough or bleedthrough. The main difference between the two brands is the slightly softer cover material and more rounded spine. I thought the cover might get scuffed easily, but this one is still in great shape after bouncing around in my bag for 3 months and being used daily. Also note that there is not the slightest sign of wear around the spine– Moleskines often start to tear a bit at the corners.


I’ve had Pen & Ink sketchbooks in my collection for years but never used one til this, and it made me wonder why I’d waited so long! It’s really a great notebook and very reasonably priced– you can find them on Amazon, though the listings there are a bit confusing in terms of page count/paper weight/ format, so buy with caution. You want to be sure you get the 96 page, 98 lb/145 GSM version, as there is also a plain sketchbook with lighter 80 GSM paper. At Blick, they are only $7.49 each:
Art Alternatives Sketchbooks and Journals

They also make a version with watercolor paper, currently $9.23 at Blick:
Art Alternatives Watercolor Books

I also bought a couple of their squared notebooks, hoping they’d be a good Moleskine alternative, but unfortunately the lines of the graph paper are really thick and dark, to the point where it’s very distracting to write on. I hope they do something about that! I will probably buy a bunch more Pen & Ink sketchbooks– their quality seems to have remained pretty consistent over the last few years, unlike Moleskine’s, but you never know. I’d like to add a few spares to my stash in case things change!

See these posts for more comparisons between Moleskine, HandBook and Pen & Ink sketchbooks:

Four Notebooks Reviewed, Part 1

Four Notebooks Reviewed, Part 2

Four Notebooks Reviewed, Part 3


How about you, readers? What are you using now?

Followup on Giant Sketchbook and Tiny Notebook

For those who were wondering about the very large and very small notebooks featured recently in readers’ collections, here you go!

The humongous sketchbook is available at Amazon here: Sketches in the Making Giant Hardcover Sketch Book
and was previously available at Blick  with the image and description below (the dust jacket is removable, with a plain black cover underneath):

Sketches in the Making Sketches in the MakingThis is a coffee table book with a big difference! It’s not just a collection of drawings and illustrations, at least not to start with. Instead, this giant, hardbound blank book invites you and your friends to create the keepsake of a lifetime. Leave it on your coffee table and watch as the blank pages slowly fill up with artwork created by you, your family, and friends. This conversation piece is bound to become an historical record of good times shared with those you know and care about. It’s also a great gift idea! The book weighs an amazing 8 lbs (3.6 kg) and contains 348 sheets of blank, 75 lb (110 gsm), acid-free white paper. The book jacket is printed to give the appearance of a genuine coffee table book. Hardcover. 348 sheets. 10¾” × 12½” (27 cm × 32 cm) .

As for the teeny weeny notebook, it’s made by PSN, a Dutch company.


I’ll be reviewing some of their notebooks here soon. Unfortunately, they do not sell direct to consumers, but you can check out the list of retailers on their website, most of which seem to be in various European countries or former Dutch colonies such as Aruba. Now that’s a notebook field trip I’d like to take!